Simon Bennett on another outing to Belgium.
Each year I have tried to get over to Belgium at the height of the T-train season to sample some of the rare diesel haulage that can be had on routes from Neerpelt to Blankenberge and Mauberge to Blankenberge. The T in T-train stands for tourist and over the period of 10th July to 27th August SNCB run these tourist trains to the Flanders seaside resorts of Knokke, Blankenberge, Oostende and De Panne to cater for the huge upturn in traffic to these resorts during annual holidays.
So it was that myself, Ted Slee and Tim "channel 16" Howlett boarded the 10.27 Brussels Eurostar on Thursday 3rd August to enjoy a long weekend on the T-trains. Arrival in Brussels was punctual at 14.05 and having bought our B-Tourail tickets it was off to the platforms to see what our first moves of a slightly thinned out Brussels rush hour would be. During the annual holidays there is a significant downturn in commuter traffic in the Brussels area so trains marked with a black triangle in the timetable do not run. This accounts for quite a few of the trains I would normally cover so I had worked on a revised plan that would concentrate what few "old" electrics would be out.
In the meantime it was first scratch of the day as 2712 arrived to form the 14.28 service to Verviers Central. Just a short hop to Brussels Centraal and back to Midi on a unit before the start of the rush hour proper but it was to be a rather lean time. Not required 2128 was covered to Noord for 2741 back to Midi then 2206 to Noord for the first required oldie of the day. 2233 worked the 16.02 Brussel Noord to Tournai which was sampled to Centraal to wait for the following Oudenaarde service which had previously been dropping class 23's. Not tonight though as 2750 rolled in but this was taken through to Midi where we were supposed to have got the 16.15 service back. No such luck as we arrived in time to watch it go so a quick sprint got us onto the 16.19 service to Genk with a required 2718 up front to Centraal then back with 2734 to Midi before taking 2732 to Centraal again to wait for the 17.04 service to Binche (all the short leaps to Centraal were needed because of late running). This turned up behind required 2211 and was a huge claw back from May as we had had to abandon this engine to catch our train for the Mercia tour of Friday 26th May.
2211 took us to Midi where we boarded the 17.13 Jemelle service. Prior to the timetable change in May this had always been a class 23 or 26 turn but it has now settled down to be a class 20. This night was no exception being 2018 so we took this to Noord to wait for 2325 to turn up on The 17.23 Dendermonde service which we were to take throughout. I had earlier seen 2325 stabled in Forest depot yard on the stock so new it was required. We just had to hope that it had not failed. Fortunately it had not and we set off for our longest journey since arriving in Belgium, a whole 40 minutes as 2325 made a stop at every station on the route to Dendermonde.
At Dendermonde we had 30minutes to wait for our next train so it was off to the frituurs for chips and a drink. The 18.47 Kortrijk service was required 2159 which got us to Gent for the big engine of the day. SNCB-gen, an information line set up by UK enthusiasts for those of us interested in the operations of SNCB had told us earlier in the day that 5158 had gone to Blankenberge in the morning and this was to be our next score.We took this back to Dendermonde and with a few minutes to photograph the engine we were soon on our way back to Gent behind requierd 2714 on the 19.47 Kortrijk.
On arrival in Gent we took 6225 on the 20.16 to Eeklo as far as Gent Dampoort station so that we could have 5109 back into Gent Sint Pieters and then it was off to our hotel in Charleroi where we arrived at 22.26.Very pleased with what had happened during the day we decided that sleep was not an immediate requirement but that a drink was. We walked out of the hotel and round the corner to a bar sat down and ordered drinks. After a few minutes some of the locals started to take an interest in us. What were three Englishmen doing in Charleroi? Did we like football? Why could we not speak French? Then one of them said "I hate the English!!!" Hmmm maybe this was not a good idea after all. Things were starting to get uncomfortable for us but we persevered with polite conversation and after a while things settled down and they started to buy us drinks. Time rolled on and eventually we left the bar happy that we had avoided another incident in Charleroi. Now what time is it? Oh Christ it's 2.30am and we are up at 5.00am. Oh well make the most of three hours in bed and off for another day's bashing.
Friday morning started with a few runs up and down the Couvin branch. 6254 took the 6.25 Couvin out of Charleroi. Then we had required 6277 back from Berzee to Jamioulx where we waited 20 minutes in the rain for 6217 to take us to Ham-sur-Heure for 6218 back to Charleroi. Then the surprise of the morning as the 7.57 Charleroi to Brussels P-train dropped 2362. This was taken to Brussels Midi where we were to wait for P7402 the 6.44 Welkenraedt to Brussels service as during the T-train season this is extended to Blankenberge and would put us in position to view the Neerpelt to Blankenberge service at Gent to see if the 51 had changed from the previous days 5158. P7402 arrived with 1501 up front so we took this to Gent where we waited to see what would arrive from Neerpelt. Oh well 5158 again, still, more photo's and then Ted and Tim went off to cover the 62 diagrams out of Gent. I was at a bit of a loss what to do at this stage.
The options were to view the diesel diagrams to see if either of my 62's were out or to increase my tally of the new class 13's which now work Antwerp to Oostende services. So I did neither. Whilst taking photographs of the 62's leaving on Ronse, Geraardsbergen and Eeklo services in rolled required 2706 working T6714 Hasselt to Oostende. I took this to Brugge for 1321 back on IC510 Oostende to Eupen and then covered 1320 on an Antwerp to Oostende service. Those of you who travel frequently on any of our main Inter City routes where push pull stock is used will have experienced the coaching stock surging as the locomotive gathers pace at the rear of the train. In Belgium this effect is worse as SNCB are having trouble with the on board computers. It would appear that the coaching stock and locomotive manufacturers have fitted systems which are incompatible and so the computer in the driving trailer and the computer on the locomotive do not talk to each other. This make for some very erratic movement when the trains do get underway and can not be described as comfortable by any stretch of the imagination. SNCB were supposed to have introduced push-pull working to the Oostende to Eupen service from May 28th but the continuing problems with driving trailers has made this impossible to achieve. Anyway 1320 bumped and banged it's way to Brugge and then I took 1310 back to Gent where waiting on the next service to Geraardsbergen was one of my 62's,6248.This was taken to Gontrode for 6220 back and then 1601 was sampled back to Brussels for the evening rush hour.
Whilst leaping back and forth between Brussels Midi and Noord I scored 2217, 2237, 2019 and 2329 which took us to Dendermonde again on the 17.23 ex Midi. More chips and then 2126 to Gent to view 5158 heading back to Neerpelt before taking 5109 to Gent Dampoort for 6216 back. Arriving back in Gent Sint Pieters we travelled in Neck and neck with the 18.57 Geraardsbergen to Gent service and at the head of this train was no heat 6230. This train goes on to form the 20.00 to Ronse so it was onto this train for a run to Eine for 6204 back to Gent and an early night in the Triannon 2 hotel.
A late start had been planned for Saturday morning and with breakfast at 7.30 and a short stroll to the station we were on the 8.14 to Geraardsbergen with 6230. This was taken to Zottegem where we waited for the return 9.00 to Blankenberge. This was train T6703 from Mauberge in France and travels to Blankenberge by way of Mons, Ath, Geraardsbergen, Zottegem, Gent Sint Pieters and Brugge. As the route from Geraardsbergen to Gent is not electrified a diesel loco is used throughout and for the last few years this has been one of the rare class 51's. This morning 5149 was at the helm to take us back to Gent where we waited for the Neerpelt - Blankenberge to arrive hoping that it would not be 5158. This morning we were lucky as the last of the class in service turned up - 5193.
5193 was taken to Brugge where due to late running we had a prolonged wait before taking the 10.59 Eupen service behind 1304 as far as Gent where we changed onto a late running Oostende to Antwerpen service with 1310 which was to get us onto the Antwerp to Neerpelt route for the afternoon. The connection at Antwerpen Berchem station for the Neerpelts is only 6 minutes and we were 5 minutes late leaving Gent. We then sat outside Antwerpen Berchem station for a further 5 minutes having also lost time en-route and it looked as though our connection was lost.
Thankfully SNCB value the connections between services, unlike the train operating companies in the UK, and the 12.23 service to Neerpelt was held for us. So with 6296 at the helm we set off along the Neerpelt route as far as Olen where we changed trains to cover no heat 6223 which we had heard was out. This was taken back to Lier for 6297 back to Olen and then 6294 which we could only take as far as Herentals due to late running. A few drinks in the station bar and then back onto 6223 now coming the other way, which would get us to Mol to cover the 15.10 service to Hasselt with 6298. On arrival in Hasselt we split up with Ted heading off to Liege and Tim and myself heading to Leaven for a few beers and a bite to eat. We met up with Ted again on the 17.05 Eupen to Oostende service with 1321 and this took us into Brussels where we sampled 2759 on EN224 Brussels to Vienna before taking 2004 on EC90 Milan to Brussels for a short leap to Brussels Centraal behind required 1324 to visit a few bars. Last moves of the day to get us back to Gent were 2010 on EC96 Basel to Brussels and 1608 on IC438 Cologne to Oostende.
Early start sunday morning with breakfast at 5.30am to catch the 6.22 service from Gent behind 1608, which got us into Brussels for the 7.16 Milan service with 2015 to Namur to cover the kyak trains. T6945 8.50 Namur to Houyet was 5301 with L6080 8.46 Libramont to Dinant being 5401. The previous day the following L6082 had also been loco hauled so we stayed with 5401 for its return working as far as a building site called Beauraing station. Here we waited to see what would come the other way expecting it to be one of the single railcars but as we looked across to the hills which surround Beauraing we could see a loco and stock coming down towards us. This turned out to be required 5215 and this was taken back to Dinant for the next unit up to Brussels.
Here we jumped onto 1608 again making it's way back to Oostende from Cologne to go to Gent Sint Pieters as we had earlier seen my last Merelbeke 62 working to Eeklo. A unit took us to Gent Dampoort station to wait for the service which should have 6249 on and yes there it was in the book. So 6.5 km may not be a huge distance but it all counts for me. Arriving back in Gent Sint Pieters it was decision time about how we were to get to Blankenberge. I waited for IC424 the 16.51 ex Gent as I had found out that required 2745 was at the helm. This was taken to Brugge for a unit into Blankenberge to cover 2114 back out on T6750 18.09 Blankenberge to Tongeren. Then another unit back in to Blankenberge put us on T6753 which is the return service to Mauberge. Today this had come up behind 5121 so a short leap was made back to Brugge to wait for the final scratch of the day which was 2132 on T6751 19.09 Blankenberge to Eupen.
Monday morning was our final morning in Belgium as we were booked back on the 11.02 Eurostar to London so an early start was made to cover as much as possible. First train was P7073 5.56 Gent Sint Pieters to Brussels as far as Wetteren where a slight fester ensued whilst we waited for the local train to Dendermonde to cover P7094 7.12 Dendermonde to Brussels. Just my luck, 2324 which I had had previously and was the first class 23 to repeat. Still, Tim needed it so it was off to Sint Gillis for the unit back to Dendermonde and on to Lokeren to catch 1312 on an Oostende to Antwerp service as far as Antwerpen Berchem to change onto the 8.23 Antwerpen Berchem to Neerpelt with 6281. All this was necessary to get us to Lier in time to cover T6712 7.37 Neerpelt to Blankenberge just in case it threw out a new 51. Unfortunately 5158 turned up but this was taken to Mechelen where we would change trains to get us to Brussles for the Eurostar. We had just joined line 25 at Duffel when 2744 raced past on the train we were to catch at Mechelen. What made it worse was that 2744 was required and there was no way we would be able to get to it.
So with our train forward gone we decided to take some more photographs of 5158 as it left Mechelen station. As we walked back down the station having watched 5158 depart we were stopped by a man wearing a security badge and told that we should not take photographs on the station without getting permission first from the station master. This was the first time this had happened to me in four years of travelling in Belgium but we apologised and went to catch the next Brussels bound train. Whilst searching through the timetable I realised that if I got off this train at Brussels Centraal I could have 2744 on it's return working as far as Brussels Noord, get the 10.00 Oostende service through to Midi and still have plenty of time to check in for Eurostar. So this was what I did and instead of having a zero morning I managed one scratch in the book before returning to England.
Leaving Brussels at 11.02 and having time to enjoy a few drinks in the Head Of Steam at Euston I was still back at my home in Rishton by 18.30 that evening. Oh, how I long for a regional Eurostar service. After the last few trips to Belgium where I have flown from Manchester I much prefer to do the journey by rail. I consider rail travel to be far more civilised than hurtling through the air in a cylinder with wings in a seat which is far too cramped for me. It still strikes me as though Regional Eurostar was abandoned without all the options being considered. We are all aware that other than a few peak trains, services from London to Brussels and return only load at about 50% of capacity. Indeed at times regional Eurostar sets have substituted for full length Eurostars on the Brussels route. Why therefore could Eurostar have not run a service from Manchester and Birmingham ONLY to Brussels offering cross platform interchange for Paris at London Waterloo International. There are still 5 years of the agreement between Eurostar and Railtrack for the paths left to run. Eurostar is already paying for those paths so it is not an extra cost. By utilising Waterloo as an interchange the regional set can also be used on the Brussels service which follows the Paris 4 minutes after departure. Eurostar were already paying for crews for the regional trains following recruitment in 1995 so any revenue generated by Manchester and Birmingham to Paris/Brussels passengers would have translated straight to the bottom line of the company. Good connections are available for most people at Birmingham New Street and if a stop was put in at Watford Junction then the North of London market would easily be catered for.
Next trip will unfortunately involve air travel on the 13th September as I travel out to Brussels for the Mercia Charters tours to Genappe and Antwerp Docks on the 15th and 16th September. Personally I can't wait to enjoy more Belgium hospitality and lots more Belgium beer.
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